Church planting essentials: Setting your pace

Starting a new church is hard work in case you didn’t know that. The early years of a new church are often marked by that ‘one step forward, two steps back’ dance that small churches do. Now we’re growing, now we’re not. Which if you’re not careful morphs into ‘He loves me, He loves me not.’

Getting to the place where I genuinely believed that the burden of building a church fell on the shoulders of Jesus and not on me, was a hugely significant step. The weight, pressure and stress dropped off in equal proportion to my confidence in the one who had made that promise. That confidence is shown by having both perseverance and patience. Yet leadership patience, especially the sort that doesn’t regress to passivity, should be shown in a number of other ways too. For me, it came in part by developing healthier ways of measuring progress but it also came with developing a healthier pace.

Stewarding and managing pace is crucial to building a healthy church. I’m a fairly seasoned runner (note I’m not saying fast) and I’ve noticed two different mistakes that runners make when approaching a race. The first one is typical of new runners and that is to set off too fast. They don’t have to sprint but even 10% faster over the first few kilometres will cause them significant problems in the latter half of the race. Energy gone, they wilt and slow up. I’ve had a few races where it felt like I was almost running backwards, so quickly did my energy seem to drain from my legs.

The second mistake, and the one I am prone to make, is to not push hard enough. Unsure of my reserves and not wanting to fade at the end, I hold back and hold back until the last stretch but I finish the race and recover too quickly. I walk away knowing I could have gone faster.

I see both those approaches in church planters, some who go crazy at the start, frantically charging about in a frenzy of energy and church planting with a ‘we will change the world and this city’ zeal only to hit the wall, realise they’re struggling to see anything of much consequence actually change, and either move on or slow right down.

For those that don’t push hard enough – talk of building friendships & relationships becomes the comfort and ease of friendships you already have rather than the new ones you need to make. New leaders are slow to emerge or leave looking for a chance to ‘do something’, the church lacks risk taking faith and love. Slowly new stories dry up. They’re running, but just not hard enough.

The sweet spot for athletes is to judge the race right, to run hard enough to keep pace but with enough left in the tank to finish strong. Paul knew he had run the race but he was also finishing strong, not looking over his shoulder but eyes fixed on the finishing tape and pushing hard (Philippians 3:14)

This balance will neither drain your team or push people to burn-out. We lead grace-filled lives that enable and empower us to rest, to enjoy, to be at our leisure. A good pace will also push the idle, the lazy, the dreamers, the comfortable to take seriously their discipleship, to trust, to pray, to believe, to hope in God who is their strength.

This balance won’t necessarily be easy to find, it will require the humility to listen to wiser heads and better runners. It will mean learning when to hold back for your family or your team, to tuck in and conserve energy and when to run hard into the wind with faith. But it will mean you and your church will run further and faster than you ever thought possible.

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